Does the Public Want Clergy in Politics?

Image credit: Jezebel

By Paul A. Djupe

The Barna Group just released a new, massive study of American clergy last Thursday called The State of Pastors that seems to undercut the public role of clergy, depending on the result you focus on. The lede for a RNS story covering the study was, “What do pastors think about social or political issues? Americans don’t particularly want to know. Only 8% of adults…” want to hear pastors’ opinions on hot button political issues.

This question about the role of clergy in political affairs is an important one for those who study religion and politics. One of the core (usually untested) assumptions of many models of religious influence in politics is that the  congregational experience is important. Just exactly how it is important and over what span of time is disputed, but clergy are seen by most as central players interpreting the implications of the faith for daily life.

A number of us have explored just how much “daily life” includes politics. Despite a widespread assumption that Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” prevents clergy from speaking out on political matters, the portions of clergy who attempt to interpret the value of the faith for the directions of public policies are huge. It is not unanimous, but vast numbers of clergy of all faiths, both liberal and conservative, address public policy issues in their public speech. Corwin Smidt’s new book collecting 3 decades of survey data on clergy shows just this – by 2009 almost all (96%) clergy engaged political topics from the pulpit in some way (2016: 156). The most common is encouraging people to vote while the least is, predictably, endorsing a candidate.

Addressing public policy is one thing, but a sizable portion of Christian clergy go much further and report that they or their congregations view them as representatives to government. As I, Ryan Burge, and Brian Calfano report in a new piece in Representation, 40 percent of a sample of Christian clergy in 2014 [1] report representational identity or behavior: contacting government officials on behalf of congregants, considering themselves a representative of the congregation, or the congregation considering them to be their representative.

And in a new survey of 1,200 white Christians in the week before the 2016 election [2], Brian Calfano and I find that clergy’s reports are reciprocated. Thirty-seven percent of evangelicals, 28 percent of Catholics, and 18 percent of mainline Protestants agree with the statement “I consider my clergyperson one of my representatives to the public and government officials.” That view is common among those attend at least once a month and falls off precipitously with lesser attendance. We also asked whether “It would be best if clergy stayed out of politics.” In line with the other results, a slim majority (51%) agrees and the rest are either ambivalent or disagree.

Together, these results beg an essential question about the role of disagreement, which is most forcefully suggested by the Barna Group finding. We asked respondents if they tend to disagree with their clergyperson, which allows us to see how disagreement structures the representational connection.

The figure below shows that relationship, which is not what one would expect if disagreement was the controlling consideration. It is those who have little information about whether they agree or disagree with clergy (the middle option) agree the least likely to see clergy as their representatives. Among evangelicals and Catholics, both those who strongly disagree and strongly agree with their clergy see them as representatives. Mainline Protestants, who are much more individualistic in their faith, deny their clergy a representational role regardless of agreement.

representative-by-disagreement_ppr-data

I have no reason to doubt the Barna Study. I also accept the finding that people are uninterested in hearing pastors’ views on some of the most contentious political issues. But clergy talk about a much wider range of issues of consequence, they tend to present a more diverse range of arguments when they perceive disagreement, and the relationship between clergy and their congregations is much different than just hearing from pastors at large. And, as we have seen here and in print in our article, one of the potentially more consequential roles for clergy as a representative may see them advocate for their congregants despite disagreement. Maybe the broader point is that neither religion nor politics can be reduced to simple definitions or logical assumptions.

Paul A. Djupe is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the former editor of Politics & Religion, and the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple). Further information about him can be found at his website here.


Notes

[1] Conducted in early 2014 through email invitations to take a survey online, Brian and I surveyed just shy of 400 clergy from the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Reformed Church in America. Further details are available in the published paper.

[2] In the 2016 survey, Brian Calfano and I contracted with Qualtrics panels to reach about 1,200 adult, white Christians. Since women tend to be somewhat more religious than men, there are 57 percent women with a sample average age of 51.

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